Today on Baseball Prospectus my column walked down memory lane back to 1977 and after reliving a few memories of the Cubs and their collapse after holding a 7.5 game lead on July 1st, look at the best and worst baserunners of that year similar to what I did for 1987.
One of the points I made in the article followed the revelation that runs contributed via stolen bases and pickoffs (EqSBR) were often much larger in the negative range thirty years ago than we see today.
"Not all managers or players were aware of the costs of allowing Gary Templeton and Enos Cabell to run with abandon, leaving a trail of broken innings in their wake. As a result, stolen base percentages were relatively low, just 62.9 percent overall. When noting the general rule that a 67-70 percent success rate is required to break even (yes, it varies by the base/out situation, and that's taken into account by EqSBR), you can see how teams left a lot of runs on the field. In fact, the aggregate EqSBR for the majors stood at a staggering -418 runs for the 1977 season, or over -16 runs per team."A very smart reader (Guy Molyneux) correctly pointed out that while it's probably true that managers allowed marginal stolen base threats to run too frequently, they also employed the hit and run more often which look, from the perspective of EqSBR, exactly like stolen bases attempts that are only visible when the runner is thrown out. In fact I had noted in the piece that Mike Vail of the Mets was 0 for 9 (with two pickoffs) costing his team 4.6 runs but there's little doubt that a good proportion of those were broken hit and run plays. Guy supports his point by noting that in 1977 there were fewer double plays grounded into per ground ball hit than in 2007 (.75 versus .82) and there is a pretty strong negative correlation between stolen bases per game and GIDP per game (-.7 from 1970 through 2007). Most interestingly, this would also have an effect on runners advancing from first to third (a topic I also mentioned briefly). With additional runners moving, they should be more successful in advancing and indeed that is what we see as there has been a declining advancement rate since 1970.
In the final analysis the more aggressive baserunning of the 1970s certainly cost teams in terms of runs via caught stealing but some of that is offset by their ability to advance more frequently. While you might imagine that my metric that tracks advancement on hits (EqHAR) would compensate, that is not the case. EqHAR compares each runner against the average advancement for the year in question and so there is no absolute baseline against which it is compared as is done with EqSBR. Unfortunately the data we have doesn't allow us to totally disambiguate the two.